the story: O'Brien infiltrates the Orion Syndicate.
what it's all about: "Honor Among Thieves" is the episode that allows the season to dive into the new dark shadings of the series introduced by the Dominion War. The opening six-episode arc itself kept away from such storytelling, and every episode following it made sure to isolate such shadings, or avoid them entirely. Here they're shown to be systemic, and therefore the first true sign that the war made permanent the general impression that Deep Space Nine takes a more pragmatic approach to the optimistic depiction of the future as originally envisioned by Gene Roddenberry.
The Orion Syndicate itself has its origins in the original series, an apparent offshoot of the green Orions (typified by the needs-no-introduction Orion Slave Girls) and their seedy interests. "Thieves" might be considered a precursor to Star Trek: Insurrection, ostensibly a Dominion War story about strange bedfellows, what happens around the edges of such conflicts. There's a Vorta trying to do what the Dominion had been trying to do before the war, which was sow distrust among its enemies, and on that score "Thieves" also manages neatly to redeem prior storytelling in the series by operating with infinitely more finesse than its predecessors (the entire Klingon arc begun in the fourth season and ended in the fifth in the run-up to the war is illustration enough).
It's also a kind of reclamation of the Maquis, the kind of storytelling both Deep Space Nine and Next Generation had attempted to do, about compromised loyalties, while helping set up Voyager. At the center of "Thieves" is O'Brien being called on by Starfleet Intelligence (who previously horribly botched a similar gambit with Picard in Next Generation's "Chain of Command"), which means making friends with an unsuspecting mark, whom the good chief ends up befriending, because the guy turns out to be hugely sympathetic, to the point O'Brien ends up feeling rotten for betraying the guy, confessing the truth to him and eventually leading to a personal mission of redemption we see play out in the seventh season's "Prodigal Daughter."
Not only that, but it's basically a prelude to Section 31, as introduced later in the season in "Inquisition," which becomes such a signature creation of Deep Space Nine that it's actually kind of its major legacy, being later featured in the reboot movies (Star Trek Into Darkness) as well in the prequel series Enterprise. O'Brien's good friend Bashir stars in that one, which only figures. But it's O'Brien who needs to star in "Thieves," to sell the humanity of it, one of the gentlest Let's-Torture-O'Brien episodes, or perhaps most cruel.
- franchise - A dark mirror to Star Trek's basic optimism.
- series - An intriguing look at the Dominion War.
- character - One of O'Brien's most subtle spotlights.
essential- It's such a quiet affair, it almost seems timid, which is kind of why Section 31 seems to loud in comparison.